Fall 2005

Virtual Reality Check

How the Internet Has — and Hasn’t — Changed the Church

By Holly Pivec

In the beginning, the Internet was created and it changed the world.

Then Christians said, “Let us take dominion and fill it.”

So they bought Web domains, named them one by one, and their online presence multiplied.

Yea, they saw the Internet and, verily, it was good.

Then prophets arose from among the congregations who foretold of a day when saints would fellowship in “cyber churches,” missionaries would reach foreign lands without leaving home, and multitudes would learn theology from their monitors.

More than a decade has passed since the Internet’s genesis. There are now over 934 million Internet users worldwide, and many are religious. Of the 128 million adult Americans who go online, 64 percent have used the Internet for religious or spiritual purposes, said a 2004 Pew Charitable Trusts study, titled “The Pew Internet & American Life Project.” Evangelicals are the most fervent in their Internet use, the study found. They “get saved” online, learn theology online, fellowship online, minister to others online — even meet their spouses online.

But have all the Internet prophecies come to pass? A closer look reveals how the Internet has — and hasn’t — changed the church.

No Assembly Required

Some Christians imagined a day when they would gather to worship and fellowship from their PCs.

Now, cyber churches are here, but their cyber pews are mostly empty. And this despite the promise of some cyber churches that they provide everything a local church provides — everything “except the potluck,” as one cyber church, named Way2Hope, puts it.

One of the more publicized attempts is the Church of Fools, sponsored by the Methodist Church in Great Britain. It’s the first 3-D online church, complete with a 3-D sanctuary. Organizers hope the church will help young Brits become interested in Christianity.

During the church’s trial period — from May 2004 to September 2004 — over 8,000 visitors attended daily services. They chose cartoon characters — based on gender, ethnicity and hair color — that could walk, kneel, clap, wave and shout hallelujah. Visitors with specific needs could walk their characters to the front of the sanctuary, so the pastor could lay hands on them and pray for them. Sermons were delivered in “text bubbles” by well-known Christians like Tony Campolo and Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London.

Despite the interest, the church’s services are now closed until organizers can raise funding. Until then, visitors can explore the sanctuary and use it for prayer and reflection (www.churchoffools.com).

Only time will tell whether cyber churches like the Church of Fools will attract lasting interest and support. Even if they do, many Christian leaders doubt that they will ever replace local churches. And research supports this. The Pew study found that most religion surfers are strongly committed to local congregations.

“Old-fashioned face-to-face socializing is much more appealing to Religion Surfers than tech-aided interactions with others that are related to their faith,” said Elena Larsen, the author of a 2001 Pew report (which had similar findings to the 2004 report).

Sounds like churchgoers like the potlucks.

Another interesting find: Religious people who spend a lot of time online still participate in local services as often as other religious people. This finding may dispel a fear that some Christians are using the Internet as a replacement for face-to-face fellowship. Instead, two-thirds of those who attend local services use the Internet to supplement their religious life.

Their most common online activities — besides sending e-mails and greeting cards with religious content — are reading news about religious events and learning more about their own beliefs and the beliefs of others. About 17 percent of religion surfers search for religious services in their community (which means it’s probably useful for a church to have an online presence).

Using the Internet to learn more about the Christian faith can be very helpful for a Christian’s spiritual growth, according to Betsy Barber, the associate director of Biola’s Institute for Spiritual Formation. Barber said there are many great sites that provide devotionals, prayer projects and instruction in Scripture.

Her concern would be if Christians started using Internet chat rooms as a substitute for face-to-face fellowship.

“Christian chat rooms may be very good, but they’re not sufficient for spiritual formation,” Barber said. “We need to be in the pews next to another living, breathing, sweating, sinning Christian so we can live out all the ‘one another’ verses.”

The growing reliance on e-mail concerns Ken Myers, the executive producer of Mars Hill Audio, a non-profit organization that examines popular culture from a Christian perspective. Myers believes that, if Christians aren’t careful, their use of the Internet can weaken their relationships.

“I know people who are in offices and say they get e-mails from people one cubicle over from them,” Myers said.

He said the Internet, if used properly, can be helpful because it maximizes efficiency. In fact, he uses the Internet in his own work. However, he cautions Christians to be deliberate as to when and how they use the technology.

“Life isn’t always about maximizing efficiency,” Myers said. “I don’t try to love my wife efficiently, or care for my children efficiently, or love God efficiently.”

Though an e-mail may be the quickest way to communicate, he said, it might not be the best way to cultivate rich relationships.

Go Ye Into All the Web

Has online missionary work replaced traditional, overseas missionary work?

No. Although the Internet has been used to supplement missionary work, several factors will prevent the Internet from replacing traditional missions, according to missionaries.

The Internet is not a panacea for finishing the Great Commission, according to Dr. Tom Steffen, a professor of intercultural studies at Biola, a former missionary to the Philippines.

For one thing, Steffen said, many people who live in unreached countries don’t have access to a telephone, let alone the Internet.

In fact, more than five out of six people in the world don’t use the Internet. And even if they could access the Internet, they may not be able to read since 23 percent of the world population is illiterate, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. So, missionaries still need to be sent to other countries.

Also, people living in closed countries fear getting caught looking at Christian sites, Steffen said. Even using fake names in chat rooms can’t guarantee their anonymity because computers can be tracked, he added.

In China — where Internet use is exploding — the government blocks sites that it deems “subversive,” including many Christian sites. It has recently installed surveillance cameras in Internet cafés to monitor what Chinese citizens are looking at.

Steffen said another obstacle to reaching people living in other countries is that online missionaries need to contextualize the gospel message for them, like traditional missionaries do. This requires the painstaking work of learning to understand a culture’s worldview and how to communicate the gospel to them in terms they can relate to. For example, some cultures are story oriented and don’t appreciate the westernized, three-point sermon, according to Steffen. Yet, some online missionaries simply translate western sermons and post them online.

“We forget that people learn differently and that Christianity needs to be presented in multiple versions,” Steffen said.

Even if these obstacles could be overcome, the Internet will never be able to provide the “human touch” factor — the sharing of daily lives with other human beings — that is so crucial to missionary work, Steffen said.

Googling God

While online missionaries share the gospel cross-culturally, online evangelists share the gospel to people of their own cultures. Many evangelistic Web sites get a lot of traffic, and they report conversions as a result of their ministries.

Yet, there’s a belief among Christians that the Internet has increased the number of spiritual seekers. But, according to the Pew research, that’s a myth. Certainly, there are spiritual seekers in cyber space, but perhaps not as many as had been thought.

Instead, the research shows that Americans’ online life mirrors their offline life. So, if they’ve shown no interest in spirituality in their daily lives, then they’re probably not researching it online. This finding is reflected by the most common topics people search online — which are less than spiritual. In 2004, the term searched most often on Google’s search engine was “Britney Spears.” Yahoo!’s was “American Idol.” Other popular terms were “Paris Hilton,” “Harry Potter” and “NASCAR.” Religious terms, like “Christianity” and “God,” didn’t even make the top 10.

Though the Internet hasn’t increased the number of spiritual seekers, it has provided more resources for them. Besides evangelistic Web sites, many Christians are using two new innovations to contribute to the cultural dialogue: “podcasts” and “blogs.” Podcasts are audio broadcasts, like radio broadcasts, that can be downloaded and played at a listener’s convenience. Blogs are online journals — like the blog written by Biola graduate Matt Anderson (’04), which he started in response to a blog written by his brother, an atheist. (Matt’s blog can be read at: mere-orthodoxy.blogspot.com.)

To support Christian blogging, Biola will host the first Christian bloggers conference, “God Blog Convention 2005,” on Oct. 13-15 (godblogcon.com).

Higher Web-ucation

Another way Christians thought the Internet would change the church is by providing theological education — both formally (through accredited online degrees and classes) and informally (through Web sites that teach laypeople the basics of the faith).

When the Internet was new, some educators predicted that all formal education would go online.

“That was totally bogus,” said Gary Wytcherley, Biola’s senior director of information systems.

Wytcherley said these educators “naively pictured students interacting with pre-packaged material on a computer screen.” What they failed to realize was that students crave personal interaction with their peers and professors. Even students from the “Net Generation” — who were born after the invention of the Internet and are comfortable online — prefer face-to-face interaction, according to a study by the University of Central Florida.

So, when it comes to formal theological training, many Christians agree that the ideal setting is a physical classroom. Because Biola believes that participation in a Christian community is crucial for a believer’s spiritual growth, the University seeks to nurture the campus community through the mentoring of students by faculty and staff.

Even though traditional classes are ideal, studies have shown that properly designed online classes can be effective and can even promote personal interaction, Wytcherley said. Online classes can be the next best thing to traditional classes, he said, for people whose life circumstances won’t allow them to move near a campus — like people living in rural areas or in Third World countries.

An example is the online classes offered by Biola’s STAR Torrey Academy — classical Christian education classes for high school students. Currently, about 220 students are enrolled in the campus classes, and about 50 are enrolled in the online versions.

Two parents who can’t say enough about the program’s online classes are Stewart and Adele Lyman, who have served as missionaries in southeast Asia for the past 20 years. Their daughter Melanie enrolled in the classes for two and half years, and now their 16-year-old daughter Rachel is enrolled in one.

“We saw Melanie really grow in critical thinking,” Stewart said. “She said it was probably the best thing she did to prepare for college.” (Melanie is now a sophomore at Biola.)

Melanie even formed friendships with her tutors and other students because of the live, online discussions.

To help make the online discussions even more personal, this fall the STAR Torrey Academy introduced audio conferencing, so students can hear each other’s comments, rather than just read them (www.biola.edu/star).

But even with emerging technologies, Wytcherley said that online education will never replace a traditional college education because the social factors in college are too valuable.

After all, in addition to getting a degree, a large number of undergraduates go to college with the hope of making lifelong friends — and maybe even finding a spouse, Wytcherley said.

Although the Internet probably won’t transform formal theological education like many thought, it has impacted informal theological education. One Christian who is seeking to educate laypeople is Biola graduate Harry Edwards (’93, ’01), the founder of Apologetics.com. His site — which receives half a million visits a month — focuses on “cultural apologetics,” that is, analyzing popular culture to identify and evaluate society’s underlying beliefs.

Edwards said he and his staff have received hundreds of letters from almost every country thanking them for Apologetics.com — many from people who don’t have access to formal theological training. 

World Wide Wed

One of the biggest and most unexpected changes the Internet has had on the church is the popularity of online matchmaking.

Before the Internet, people who used matchmaking services were often viewed by others as desperate. And Christians were often viewed by other Christians as not trusting God to bring them a spouse. Today, online matchmaking is a trendy way to seek a spouse, with two out of five singles having tried it, according to JupiterResearch.

Even Christians have a new respect for online services like eHarmony.com, founded in 2000 by Christian counselor Dr. Neil Clark Warren. The service claims it has created thousands of “happy, thriving” marriages based on compatibility. To support this, eHarmony cites research presented to the American Psychological Society which “found that eHarmony married couples are significantly happier than couples married for a similar length of time who met by other means.”

One prominent supporter of online matchmaking is psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud (’87), who graduated from Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology. In his book, How to Get a Date Worth Keeping, Cloud devoted a chapter to online matchmaking, which he titled, “Get Over the Stigma, Join a Service.”

Cloud said many societal factors work against single people, especially Christians, who desire to be married. This is supported by data from the March 2000 U.S. Census that showed a rise in the number of single, never-married people. A major cause, Cloud said, is there is no structure in place for helping singles to meet other single people.

“When people are in college, it’s like a dating farm,” Cloud said. “Young people are with a few thousand single people of their same age, and there are lots of opportunities for them to meet people.”

After college, their network of friends tends to disband as people move away or get married, Cloud said. The average single Christian goes to work (where she sees the same people everyday), goes home, and goes to church (where she sees the same people every week). Besides, Cloud says, the research shows that most Christians don’t meet their spouses at church.

“So, some Christians get into their mid-20s, and nothing is happening in their dating lives,” Cloud said.

And then they’re told, by well-meaning Christians, that God will bring someone to their door, and they just need to keep trusting Him, Cloud said. So, they become stuck in their singleness.

“To me, it became a theological problem because we would never tell anyone that the way you build a career is to graduate from college, go sit at home, and go to church, and God will bring your job to you,” Cloud said. “The created order is that God provides, and we participate.”

A good online matchmaking service — that screens people and has protections in place — will provide the structure to meet quality, single people, Cloud said.

At least one Biola graduate — 37-year-old Donald Riddick (’90) — is a firm believer in online matchmaking. He met his wife Keri Vnenchak — a 30-year-old veterinarian from Birmingham, Ala. —through eHarmony.com.

They both started using eHarmony in February 2003, at the prodding of their mothers. Before using eHarmony, Donald lived in Irvine, Calif., and his work with IBM required him to travel often. So, he found it hard to form a relationship. Donald tried to follow the popular Christian advice to “meet someone at church.” But, he felt like he was viewing church as a place to meet women, not worship.

Before Keri used eHarmony, her job at an emergency animal clinic required her to work nights, weekends and holidays — shutting down her dating life. Plus, she had gone through a failed engagement and had become more cautious about whom she dated.

An online service turned out to be just what they both needed. After being matched, they exchanged e-mails, then talked on the phone, and then met in person. After five months, Donald proposed, and they were married Jan. 31, 2004. The couple — who lives in Ashville, Ala. — say they are very happy.

“Keri is an amazing, godly woman,” Donald said. “It’s been marvelous to find out how much better life can be when you’re married to the right person.” 

How Now Shall We Browse?

Despite early “prophecies,” many Christians have realized that the Internet will never — and should never — replace the church’s main functions, like worship, fellowship, evangelism and education. Instead, they believe the Internet should be used as a tool to supplement these functions.

That’s because, for all its powers, the Internet is limited. It can’t provide the face-to-face contact that human beings seem to want and need

God knew this need, Cloud said, and that’s why the Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us. In the same way, he said, we need to be incarnational with each other.

“Real spiritual community involves people physically showing up in the same space,” he said. “There are spiritual and psychological reasons for this: God has designed us so we need to be in social proximity to people — not just talking to them on the phone or the Internet.”

Barber agrees.

“We need other human beings to sharpen each other, to love each other, to tell the truth to each other and to minister to each other,” she said.

And, as helpful as the Internet is, “you can’t lay hands on someone and pray for them on the Internet,” Barber said.

Unless, of course, you’re a cartoon character.

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